Budget woes, but hopes for consolidation

Walt Shepperd 10/02/09More articles
A conversation with County Exec Mahoney and Deputy Billy Fisher—Part 2

Since Part 1 of this conversation with the county’s two top administrators appeared in the City Eagle Sept. 3, the first question hasn’t gotten any easier to answer.

The road to the budget got even more rugged. When they presented the proposed county budget to the county legislature on Sept. 15, the Post-Standard headlined: “Mahoney’s budget ‘a little scary’.” And while she has noted that county employees seemed a little more understanding when she talked to them on elevator rides, union leadership and letters to the Post-Standard reader’s page seemed uncompromising in their opposition.

There was then, however, good news about the activity of county government. Mahoney cited a turnaround on the cleanup of Onondaga Lake. Human Services administrator Ann Rooney was credited with maintaining crucial programs in the face of brutal funding cuts, especially in day care centers. A food stamp program emerged as exemplary to the point where other counties are copying it. A regional approach to common issues was seen as reducing rivalry between city and county, and between Onondaga and other counties. Part 2 picks up on the discussion of (apparently now not such a dirty word) consolidation, and an idea for downtown development.

Consolidation—it seems we have to duck when using the word—could go a long way toward helping with the current crunch, for both the city and the county. Any progress?

Joanie Mahoney: Consolidation seems to have come over to the good side. People talk about consolidation like it’s not a bad thing anymore. We have had some big successes and are having some ongoing conversations. I have been in this office with town supervisors talking about their departments of transportation, and the county department of transportation, and how can we work together better. I have offered to town supervisors help with their budgets. If there are things that they think are more appropriately handled at the county level, then we are doing those things. That has, like the Clay police consolidation, been more easily accomplished.

We’re accomplishing things, rather than standing back and say, “It’s all or nothing. We’re either taking the whole city or we’re not talking about how we save money.” What we are doing is looking for those opportunities to continue to work together. We’ve gone to the city with the notion of putting some of our people in the same office, and seeing if that is an easy enough first step. They’re agreeable to that, and the county has even offered to provide the space. We’ve said, “It’s worth it to us if you’ll bring some of your economic development people and have them sit next to our economic development people.”

Billy Fisher: There are a lot of conversations happening at the grass-roots level. There are fire departments talking to each other. There are police departments talking to each other. There are a lot of people talking about sharing services, and we’ll encourage those conversations. But it has to come up from the grass-roots. If it’s seen as being driven from the top-down it’s never going to take. So there is a lot of dialog happening out there.

When Andy Cuomo put out his new laws that give us some more tools to do consolidation, and he sent his representative to town, to the Chamber of Commerce, there was a full room. There was standing room only for the Government Modernization Task Force. There are a lot of things percolating up.

JM: And our role has been a little more aggressive. When we hear those conversations taking place, we have invited people in to this office, and in some cases that’s ended in a proposal that they can take back to their town board. I’m learning a lot. It doesn’t make sense for us to be plowing county roads, right next to state plows that are plowing state roads, right next to towns that are plowing town roads. The voters are smart enough to know that there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit, and we are going after it.

What are the obstacles? Fiefdoms? People worrying about losing their influence?
BF: Habit. People are used to doing things a certain way.

JM: It’s very difficult to change. Sometimes you can see the light go off with people. I said I was going to buy buttons that say, “The way we’ve always done it,” with a red line through it.

People who have done things one way for so long, assume that that’s codified somewhere in law. They think that’s the only way you can do it, and the notion that there’s a possibility to do it differently is kind of carried along, but we’re constantly pushing the idea of, “Why do you do it that way? Are you sure you can’t do it a different way?” And when you go back and look, it turns out you can do it a different way.

But there is also, and I do not want to participate in it, things slow down when people are trying to take credit. The conversations get closed, and people don’t want to share information, because they’re afraid you’re going to take their idea and call a press conference. I have said, “I don’t care who gets credit.” My focus is so clear on what I’m trying to do, and I only want to give the community a very short amount of time to be a place where young people want to live. All of my decisions are focused that way, so clearly, that if the mayor needs to take credit, you just let him take credit. I will go out of my way to give people credit if that’s what they need. I don’t mean to single him out, but there’s a lot of that that goes around.

There are rumors that you have an idea for development downtown, an athletic complex?

JM: That’s not just rumor. There is some truth to that. I am among the people that wishes the baseball stadium was downtown. But it’s not. And it’s never going to be. And rather than sit around over coffee and complain, what can we do? You did see some success with the soccer team, and there are kids in the community that play, and I thought since we’re not building a sewerage treatment plant, wouldn’t it be great to think about what you could build on some property over in Armory Square.

That is among the things we are thinking. But in this economy there are no new things. Do everything you can to make sure you’re saving the people the county is supposed to be saving, and saving them as well as you can with limited resources. When this economy turns around, and we have some money to do things, I think it would be terrific to have something downtown that would draw people.

BF: In the meantime, you’ve seen Joanie get behind just using the Alliance Bank Stadium differently. The Bob Dylan concert was unbelievable. People got in and out of the parking lots, no problem.

JM: And the Chiefs attendance is up as a result. It generated conversation speaking to your question. Wouldn’t it be great to have an amphitheater? It was great out there, but it’s not designed for that. But {new director} Terri Toennies is doing a great job at Oncenter, and you’ll see concerts now at the War Memorial that you haven’t seen in awhile, because she sits down with people like Howard Dolgan from the Crunch, and says, “Is there a way you and I could work together here that would free up some time to do things that would benefit the community.
She’s done the same with the Symphony.

CATEGORY: Government
TAGS: Oncenter,War Memorial,Howard Dolgan,Crunch,Onondaga County,Joanie Mahoney,Alliance Bank Stadium,Billy Fisher,Onondaga county exec and deputy,Clay police consolidation,Syracuse Chamber of Commerce,consolidation,Symphony
EDITION: The Eagle

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